Bushmeat and the next pandemic

Nathan Wolfe
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

When we think about the beginnings of the AIDS pandemic, we tend to think back to the 1980s. And while that is the decade when we first became aware of the crisis, in fact it started much earlier. HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS, made its first appearance about 100 years ago in a human in central Africa, almost certainly someone who had hunted or butchered chimpanzees, the species in which HIV-1 originated.

The hunting of wild game – or bushmeat – seems, to many, to be a boutique cause. Perhaps you remember an upsetting video or photo linked to a campaign aimed at protecting an endangered species. Yet the significance of bushmeat goes deeper than that.

When our grandchildren think back to this moment in history they will judge us. In fact, I predict that among the things that our grandchildren will judge us on will be the consumption of wild animals for food.

They will ask why on our watch we let some of the most valuable species on the planet, including our closest living animal relatives, be brought to the edge of extinction because of hunting.

They will ask why we, with all of our global resources, permitted large groups of people to be subjected to food insecurity because of their dependence on unsustainable wild animal food sources.

They will ask why we sat by idly while the kind of hunting that sparked one of the most deadly pandemics in human history raged on, at each moment potentially permitting new viruses to spill over from a hunted animal and spread in our hyperconnected world.

They will also ask why those of us fortunate enough to live in a world with plentiful protein sources somehow felt that the responsibility for the ills of the bushmeat problem rested with some of the most impoverished people in the world.

Bushmeat lies at the very heart of conservation, food security, global public health and rural poverty. Yet it is a problem with solutions. Efforts to provide protein alternatives to poor populations in biodiverse regions that depend on wild game have huge benefits to the entire planet.

Creative options abound – in one effort proposed by colleagues in Cameroon, wild animals will be domesticated, thus providing jobs to rural communities and satiating demand in urban communities that still have a taste for wild game.

Investing in solutions to this problem will benefit not only endangered species or populations in a distant part of the planet, it will benefit all of us and our grandchildren will thank us for it.

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April. 

Watch the Poverty Alleviation & Reduction of Infectious Disease Risk through Mitigation of Bushmeat Dependence video

Nathan Wolfe is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Metabiota. He is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: A baby chimpanzee rescued from bushmeat traders in southern Sudan by wildlife workers REUTERS

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